Full empty nests

My dear friend Mindy and I were talking about that special ache in the chest that arrives when you say goodbye to your adult child after a visit. She forwarded this piece from the Washington Post which was written as columnist Michael Gerson’s older son was heading to university. “I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.”

And therein lies one of the great unspoken ironies of modern parenting. You work through the sleepless infant period, followed by the exhausting toddler period, which launches eventually into the tumultuous adolescent period. And then, just as your child is the sort of adult with whom you most want to spend time and who washes the dishes on occasion, he or she moves out.

And then we wonder: what do we do with this house that has rooms that still smell of her perfume? What do we do with our lives which have the space for an impossibly deep love that can’t be fully expressed in a few phone calls each week?

I have realized that this French experiment is more than just a little bit my answer to this question. It is the attempt to fight against Gerson’s, “I have no possible future that is better without him close.” I can fall into this perspective too, weeping on the plane home from a visit. But the home I fly to whispers a new answer. More than half of us here in this big old house have kids in their 20s. I think all of us are craving a kind of community that our lives didn’t quite offer before, and for those of us whose kids have moved out, a kind of community that perhaps we are at a loss to construct in their palpable absence. This might not be your particular solution to this challenge, but it has some features that I’m beginning to recognize as perhaps less idiosyncratic than I once believed.

First of all, anyone at this phase of life needs living spaces that are elastic somehow. Before we dreamt up this French Experiment, my image of the empty nest was either in a house too big for Michael and me, kicking around through (and paying to rent/ own/ heat) depressingly empty rooms or downsizing into a space too small to welcome our kids when they came home for the holidays. With grown kids, we need enough space to host our children (and god willing eventually their children) that doesn’t feel wasted and empty when they go away. Here in France, our giant property with 21 bedrooms and a constant stream of visitors means that the room with Aidan’s clothes sometimes is filled with Aidan and sometimes with Alexandra’s Finn and sometimes with Carolyn. I love all those people and each of them makes my heart sing. Our house has the elasticity to hold children and grandchildren and then shift to hold friends and colleagues and then shift to be just the living and working space of the 12 of us who own it. Somehow even when our rooms are empty, they are filled with the promise of the next visitor and the sweet scent of potential connection.

Secondly, we need living spaces that are filled with learning and renewal. A family is like this always: the kids change so fast that by the time I felt competent at parenting a 7-year-old, there were no seven-year-olds left. While interpersonal relationships are always challenging, the many relationships in an intentional community means that there is always something to learn from one another or from the way we bump against one another. I find myself growing as I stretch into these new spaces—to deal with conflict in a more generative way, to discover difference without judgement, to notice when I have an unquestioned assumption that my way is simply the right way. In the company of these friends, I’ve been able to catch sight of my own shadows which I had hidden so carefully from myself in previous chapters, the way the bright sun streaming into a new living room highlights the stain on the sofa that was imperceptible in the old place.

Finding things that I am hiding for myself—the ways I get anxious about money, for example, or the ways I so easily feel left out—isn’t particularly fun, but hiding from them doesn’t promise much growth. Catching myself in the full sun and shadow of who I am today creates the potential for growth for all the rest of my life.

Much of this discovery, I’ve realized, lies in the third element: my new living situation forces me to spend time in relationship. You know, in a good way. I notice that without the push of my kids’ school and their friends etc., I can fall into a kind of hermit phase, where my introversion just feeds on itself, and I spend more and more time on my own. Or I spend more time putting on some kind of social face along with clean clothes and socks that match. Here in this community—like in my earlier life with my younger children—I bump into others whether I’m ready or not. We don’t have the time or capacity to polish and perfect ourselves as we interact with each other. Proximity and the various tasks of daily life mean that we see each other in all emotional weathers—whether we’re grumpy or joyful or tired or sad or proud. I was worried that this would be a problem for me when the fog of melancholy settles in around me as it has my whole life. In the past, I would stay away from the humans who might actually be a key part of blowing the fog away, and instead I would hunker down in the grey. Here I’m forced to take my melancholy fog like a cloak to our shared dinners and have it acknowledged and gently stroked by my friends. Somehow that makes it all more bearable.

And finally—and perhaps most importantly—this empty nest is filled with love. There was a moment 25 years ago when I looked into the grey eyes of my firstborn, seconds old, and I realized that no matter what happened next, I would love her every second of every day for the rest of my life. In most families, the assumption is that we will love each other without condition. And, because we’re small and tender (or big and stressed), even in a functional family we create invisible scars in the soft surface of our relationship, and it can take decades for those scars to soften into the patina of a mature adult-adult relationship with our parents or our children. Here in this community, we bring our scars, our quirks, our moth-eaten sweaters, and we look at them somehow with love. Like a family, the assumption here is that we will love one another and those who visit. We assume that each person around our table is deserving of our love. Of course we occasionally get frustrated with each other. We sometimes rub each other wrong. We can lash out and take offense and be generally human. But the thing that has surprised me most is that the ground we have built on is love.

This then is my question, for all of us, no matter where we live. Do you have an elastic life that can expand to hold people you love and then shrink back to hold you in the quiet? Do you have learning and renewal at home? Do you have spaces where you find yourself pushed into community, into relationship? And, most importantly, do you have your home anchored tightly in an assumption of love even in your full humanity? Too many of us will answer no to one or more of those questions, assume that even wishing for a series of Yeses would be greedy or impossible. But I’m here as an existence proof to tell you that it’s possible. Your nest might empty—or, like a third of us here, you might never have had children. Or like one of us, your children might still be home, still asking for bedtime stories and hiding behind your legs when a stranger comes into the room. But this second half of life can be filled with a generativity that is as beautiful as the first half, a generativity that the troubled world requires.

May our homes be places of growth and discovery. May we welcome friends and strangers to our table. May we discover that we are worthy with our shadows and our light. May all of our nests be filled with love.

4 thoughts on “Full empty nests

  1. Jennifer – this is perhaps the loveliest description I’ve read about this tender, achey experience. It also reflects so much of what I’ve learned about renewal after incapacitating loss. So wonderful still being enriched by your words after all these years and life chapters.

    (I especially remember us coming together with our babies on 9/11 – wanting yo be in community with our children in our arms). Katie, Deb, Linda…what a memory

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my dear friend how wonderful to hear from you! I follow whatever writing of yours I can get my hands on. What a terrible and beautiful journey you have been on. Sending so much love for your continued healing. Let me know if you’d ever like a retreat here in France…

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  2. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your vulnerabilities and reflections through your deeply illuminating words. I too am at my next chapter with my adult children (all in their 30’s). My husband and I are selling our large family home to create something new, and as yet undiscovered. We are sitting in the potential of what will emerge. In thinking about where we will live next your words on generating community and elastic spaces resonated deeply with what I have been wondering about. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

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